In a time when isolation can mean the difference between healthy living and potential exposure to the coronavirus, many senior residents living on their own -- who may have already been susceptible to acute loneliness -- have been having a particularly rough go of it.
Residents aged 65 and older have been classified as an at-risk population during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with the virus significantly more deadly among older residents, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department.
The danger posed by the virus has made it necessary for senior residents to avoid crowded public places, put off running everyday errands and even stop seeing friends and family in-person, creating a situation where many seniors feel alone and cut of from their own community.
"I think we're pretty fortunate. You know we have our own house and our expenses aren't too much, and we have been taking advantage of some of the (senior programs)," said Pleasanton resident Bob Wahrer, who is set to turn 91 years old this week. "Not being able to see people ... the isolation of not being able to see anybody, not being able to go out, is tough."
Bob said he is fortunate in that he lives with his wife of 67 years, Jan; however, that doesn't mean that the pair haven't felt isolated from their community due to the pandemic and subsequent shelter-in-place order.
"Not being able to go anywhere, and even if you get there, you don't know if you are going to be able to accomplish anything -- that's one of our biggest concerns right now," he said.
Not necessarily a new issue for seniors, widespread feelings of isolation and loneliness that have been compounded by the pandemic might have existed long before the outbreak.
According to a report released by the National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) Foundation in October 2018, 45% of seniors felt lonely on a regular basis -- a feeling that when left to fester can have a similar impact to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the report.
Robert Taylor, executive director of the Senior Support Program of the Tri-Valley, said these feelings of isolation and loneliness commonly abound in seniors who have retired from their jobs and have faced the recent death of a spouse, friend or other loved one.
"That's a pretty typical scenario for seniors facing isolation. In our program, we usually see seniors doing particularly well until a spouse or very close friend passes away and then we have people who think they don't really have anybody else. They haven't really cultivated a network of support," Taylor told the Weekly.
"Add health issues that come into play, and they lose the confidence to be a part of their community or really to just leave their home," he added.
Further highlighting the fact social isolation and loneliness not only leads to mental health concerns like depression, extended periods of being alone or homebound can also lead to a number of physical health difficulties.
To help seniors break free from isolation, Taylor said the No. 1 starting point is to reach out to someone and let them know they need a little support. Reaching out to an old friend, family member, a neighbor, local church affiliate or senior support group are all good places to begin.
"I would tell (seniors) to contact us," added Mercel Amin, administrative director for Senior Support. "We are a big team of passionate individuals, and we are really here to service the underserved and seniors. Especially now, but year-round, because they are so underserved throughout the year."
Amin told the Weekly that Senior Support has a number of programs to provide assistance to older residents, ranging from grocery delivery and in-home counseling to more social wellness events. Perhaps most relevant to the topic at hand, Senior Support's Friendly Visiting Volunteer Program, which pairs volunteers with seniors for socialization and companionship.
Friendly Visiting is conducted primarily via telephone with volunteers calling in to check on seniors and spending some time to chat about whatever topic comes to mind -- be it family, health issues, world events or just happenings around town. Prior to COVID-19 the program also included home visits, however those have at least temporarily been disbanded due to the virus.
Volunteer opportunities are always open at Senior Support, for its Friendly Visiting and numerous other aid programs, according to staff, who added that volunteers often get as much out of the experience as clients do.
"This is a great time to volunteer to help and assist seniors," Taylor said. "Every single one of our Friendly Visiting clients absolutely loves it when they have someone to call them on a regular basis, and I would say volunteers also give us really positive feedback. It makes their day, and they feel like they've helped somebody, which they have."
For their part in breaking isolation, the Wahrers have been keeping busy with projects and yard work around the house, and will occasionally have visits from their daughter and granddaughter from Livermore. Additionally, they subscribe to various Senior Support programs, including its food delivery service.
They will also go on short drives or walks through their neighborhood park as a way to get out of the house and move around -- activities that staff from the Senior Support say is vital in seniors maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
"It's a lot of 'Well, what do we do tomorrow,'" Bob said.
Alameda County Public Health, which also has been striving to tackle isolation among seniors during the time of coronavirus, has a number of helplines for seniors.
"Sheltering-in-place is critical to the health of older adults who are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, but it can be overwhelming. Remember that physical isolation does not have to be socially isolating; there are connections that can be established or maintained," Faith M. Battles, assistant agency director for Alameda County's Adult and Aging Services, said in a recent public service announcement video.
"Stay connected with family and friends through phone or video calls to brighten your day, have a plan for who can help with food medicine or other supplies. Be sure to move your body every day with exercise to boost your mood and increase our energy," she added.
Residents can call the county's 24 hour friendship line at 1-800-971-0016 to chat with a volunteer or learn more anti-isolation strategies. If a resident is in need of more urgent care, they can call the county's Crisis Support Services line at 1-800-273-8255. For an emergency, call 9-1-1.